Biblical Studies/New Testament Commentaries/Revelation/Introduction
Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse, is the last book of the New Testament, and consequently of the Bible as a whole. Its name comes from the Greek, Apocalypsis, the first word of the book, which means Revelation. Revelation belongs to a genre known as apocalyptic literature, of which there are numerous examples, both inside and outside of the Bible.
Revelation is a fitting conclusion to the Biblical saga. Within its chapters, the tension between good and evil which began in the Garden of Eden comes to a head and finds its final resolution. While Revelation's larger themes are abundantly clear, its details provide a considerable challenge for interpreters. Revelation brings together the worlds of heaven, earth, and hell in a final confrontation between the forces of good and evil. Its characters and images are both real and symbolic, spiritual and material, and it is frequently difficult to know which is which. Its cryptic nature has ensured that it would always be a source of controversy. Nevertheless, it has not only endured, but captured the imaginations of generations of Bible students, both professionals and laypeople alike.
Methods of Interpretation
Revelation is a cryptic document which has been interpreted in many ways. Most of the interpretations fall into one or more of the following categories:
- Historicist: Revelation presents a broad view of history, with the major people and events of history represented, especially where they concern Israel and the Church.
- Preterist: Revelation chiefly refers to the events of the apostolic era (first century AD), including the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, and the persecutions of the young church by the Roman Empire.
- Futurist: Revelation chiefly describes events which have not taken place yet, but which will come to pass at the end of this age and at the end of the world.
- Symbolic or Idealist: Revelation is purely symbolic, an allegory of the spiritual path and the ongoing struggle between good and evil.
While it is useful to have a conceptual grasp of these approaches, it should be remembered that they are by no means mutually exclusive, and it is necessary to take all of them into account for a well-rounded understanding of this challenging document.
The author of Revelation identifies himself several times as "John". The traditional position, still held by many scholars, is that this John is the apostle of the same name. Those who support apostolic authorship point to the testimony of the early church fathers, beginning with Justin Martyr (c. 100-165 AD), who was an acquaintance of Polycarp (Polycarp was mentored by John). Also in the second century, Irenaeus (c. 115-202), Theophilus of Antioch (died c. 183), and Tertullian of North Africa (c. 160-220) gave credit to the apostle for authorship.
Those in favor of apostolic authorship also point to stylistic similarities between Revelation and the other works traditionally accredited to the apostle, such as the identification of Jesus as the “Word of God." Differences in style are explained by the fact that the gospel, epistles, and Revelation are written in three different genres with different purposes, at different times, and possibly with different secretarial assistance. Charles Erdman, an advocate of apostolic authorship, writes:
- The author calls himself John, both in the opening and the closing verses of the book. He states that because of his Christian faith he has been banished to the isle of Patmos. He addresses the churches of Asia with a consciousness of unquestioned authority. Of no other person in the first century could these statements be made.
In more recent times, apostolic authorship has been questioned. While most scholars are happy to accept the identification of an author named John, some suggest that this may not be John the apostle, but another John who was influential in the first century church, who is referred to as John of Patmos, after the Aegean island on which the visions were received. Textual criticism, a recent development in Biblical scholarship, has been influential in this conclusion. Those who disagree with apostolic authorship focus on the differences, rather than the similarities, in style between the Gospel of John, the epistles of John, and the Revelation, and see them as indicative of two (or more) separate authors.
While there have been dissenters, most scholars accept Revelation as the work of a single author, based on the overall unity of style and structure (see Literary Elements, below).
Date of Writing
There are two dates commonly put forth for authorship: around 95 AD, near the end of the Roman emperor Domitian's reign; and around 65 AD, during the reign of Nero.
The later date is supported by the testimony of Irenaeus (c. 115-202), who wrote that he received his information from people who knew John personally: "[John's vision] was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian's reign." Domitian, according to Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 263–339), started the persecution of Christians which resulted in John’s exile.
The earlier date is necessitated by the preterist interpretation (see Methods of Interpretation, above) of chapter 17, verses 10 and 11, where the "seven kings" are regarded as the succession of Roman emperors up to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Since the passage says that "five have fallen," "one is," and one is "yet to come," the present emperor must be the sixth of the seven. Nero fits the model because there was a time of persecution during his reign. Domitian does not fit because he was not one of the seven. To arrive at the required seven, it is necessary to exclude the three short-term emperors who came after Nero -- Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, who all ruled less than a year – and to add Julius Caesar as the first, for he was not regarded by Roman historians as an emperor. Nero would then be the sixth and current emperor, which would place the date of authorship between 64 AD, when persecution broke out, and 68 AD, when Nero died. (Not all interpreters agree that the "kings" are seven Roman emperors. For more on the passage in question, see the commentary on 17:10-11.)
Whatever Revelation may become in the fertile fields of interpretive minds, it is first and foremost a piece of literature, and it should be understood in literary terms. This does not exclude other approaches, it merely underscores them. A number of literary elements can be identified in Revelation, such as structure, plot, major characters, and unifying themes.
In the first chapter, John has a vision of Christ, who gives him the following commission: “Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this.”[1:19] This threefold commission identifies the three primary divisions of the book:
- Chapter 1: “the things which you have seen,” i.e. John’s vision of Christ.
- Chapters 2-3: “the things which are,” i.e. the messages to the seven Asian churches.
- Chapters 4-22: “the things which will take place after this.” Taken at face value, this refers to events which are future to the time of the visions, though whether this is actually the case, or to what extent, or how far in the future, are all a matter of debate.
In terms of Revelation’s overall structure, the book is built around four successive groups of seven: the messages to the seven churches, the seven seal judgments, the seven trumpet judgments, and finally, the seven bowl judgments. There are also introductory and concluding passages, and additional passages which are inserted between the main structural elements in various places throughout the book (see the page entitled Outline of Revelation).
The repeated occurrence of the number seven contributes to the overall unity of Revelation. While several numbers stand out—3, 4, 7, 10, 12, 24, 144, 1000—seven appears to have a special significance. There are seven churches symbolized by seven lampstands (1:20); the churches have seven angels symbolized by seven stars (1:20); there are seven spirits before the throne of God, symbolized by seven lamps (4:5), and also by seven horns and seven eyes (5:6); the judgment scroll has seven seals (5:1) with a corresponding set of seven "seal judgments"; the seventh seal unleashes seven "trumpet judgments," which are heralded by seven angels (8:1-2); the seventh trumpet unleashes seven "bowl judgments," where the bowls of God's wrath are poured out by seven angels (15:1); there are seven mysterious thunders about which John is not permitted to say anything (10:3); 7,000 people are killed in an earthquake (11:13); the dragon has seven heads and seven diadems on his heads (12:3); and the beast from the sea has seven heads (13:1).
One half of seven, 3½, is also a conspicuous number in Revelation, specifically as a time period: two witnesses are given power to prophesy 1,260 days, or exactly 3½ years, according to the Hebrew year of 360 days (11:3); the witnesses are then killed, and their dead bodies lie in the streets of Jerusalem for 3½ days (11:9); the "woman clothed with the sun" is protected in the wilderness for 1,260 days, or 3½ years (12:6); Gentiles tread the holy city underfoot for 42 months, or 3½ years (11:2); and the beast is given authority to continue for 42 months, or 3½ years (13:5).
A plot, or general storyline, can be identified in Revelation. The story proper is in included in chapters 4-22, but chapters 1-3 lay the groundwork. These first three chapters consist of a brief introduction followed by seven separate messages conveyed by the author to seven churches. The larger themes of the book as a whole – judgment, salvation, the coming of the Messiah, etc. – are exposed in these messages, each of which is tailor-made for the church in question. Each message assesses how that particular church is doing, and tells it what change, if any, needs to be made. In a nutshell, the churches are each presented with a choice: to be faithful or not to be faithful. The potential consequences of their choices are graphically illustrated in the story proper, in ch. 4-22. The messages to the churches also serve as a device to convey a message to a wider audience, for each church's message ends with: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (2:7, etc.).
The plot of the story proper (ch. 4-22) is driven by a powerful conflict between the forces, both earthly and spiritual, of good and evil. Expressed in the simplest terms (for more detail, see the page entitled Outline of Revelation), it is as follows:
- 1) There is a time of great tribulation on the Earth which combines natural disasters with war on an unprecedented scale.
- 2) The "Lamb" saves his people from the tribulation, destroys the wicked, and ushers in an age of peace.
- 3) After the age of peace, there is a second, brief time of trouble which results in the permanent banishment of the wicked.
- 4) A new heaven and a new earth replace the old, and the people of God go to live in the presence of God and Christ in a heavenly city described as the "new Jerusalem."
(See the commentary for different interpretations of these details. This section is only concerned with what appears on the surface.)
Revelation has an array of colorful characters. The protagonist, known throughout most of the book as the "Lamb," is a hero of magnificent proportions. Almost as impressive is the antagonist, Satan, an archvillain who is also known as the "dragon." There are various other characters, both good and bad, including the narrator (John), two witnesses, the archangel Michael, the beast from the land, the beast from the sea, the woman clothed with the sun, the great harlot (Babylon the Great), numerous angels, and the four strange creatures around the throne of God. Some of the characters appear to be actual persons (whether on the spiritual or the physical plane), while others appear to be purely symbolic.
- Rev. 1:1, 4, 9; 22:8
- St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho Chapter lxxxi.
- Charles Erdman. Revelation of John: An Exposition. Westminster, 1936.
- Before Jerusalem Fell, Powder Springs, Georgia: American Vision, 1989.
- A.H. 5.30.3
- Robert Mounce. "The Book of Revelation." The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Cambridge: Eerdman's, 1997. 19-21.